Enigma (DVD)

“The success of this plan depends on arranging a massacre.”

Although the Enigma machine is mainly cited in connection with World War II events, its history began long before that. It was first invented in 1918 as a device intended to increase security for banking transactions. While it never caught on for that purpose, its potential was recognized by the German military. Looking something like a glorified typewriter, the Enigma machine was a complicated combination of rotating cylinders, electrical contacts, and wire connectors whose setting converted an input set of letters into a completely different output set. The complexity of the machine was such that the odds of breaking the enigma cipher were 150 million million million to one.

In 1932, the machine was undergoing testing by the German army when a group of Polish mathematicians managed to crack the cipher and even reconstruct an Enigma machine. When war broke out in 1939, the Polish passed on their findings to the British, providing crucial assistance to the British in their own code-breaking efforts. By this time, the difficulties were immense, as the machine cipher was altered every day.

The British code-breaking efforts were centred at Bletchley Park, some 60km outside London. The chief code-breaker was Alan Turing, a Cambridge professor who built on a Polish idea to build an electro-mechanical machine that could much more quickly scan through cipher possibilities than any human could. This first rudimentary electronic computer was known as a Bombe. More sophisticated versions of these were later built in America to further aid in the War’s various code-breaking endeavours.

The work at Bletchley Park was kept secret after the War for 30 years, and only in the past decade has the whole story been able to be told. Several film and television programmes have attempted to dramatize the Enigma role in the War in recent years. Included are a British television series called “Station X” and the American film U-571, which blatantly distorted the facts of the Allies’ acquisition of one of the German Enigma machines. The most recent effort is a British film, Enigma, which Columbia has now released on DVD.

Britain’s top code-breaker Tom Jericho, still suffering from the break-up of his relationship with the beautiful Claire Romilly, is summoned back to Bletchley Park, the home of British code-breaking operations during World War II. The Germans, who use the Enigma machine to encipher and send all their military communications, have introduced a new code that must be broken quickly or else Atlantic convoy operations will be entirely at the mercy of the German U-boat packs.

It soon transpires that Claire has disappeared and Jericho’s past relationship with her brings him into contact with intelligence agent Wigram, who is investigating Claire’s disappearance as being a possible link to German spy activities within Bletchley. Jericho discovers that Claire had hidden several coded German messages in her room just before her disappearance. Using these as a starting point, Jericho, with aid of Claire’s housemate Hester Wallace, attempts to sort out a puzzle that may link Claire to the German code change, and a Russian atrocity from the early days of the war.

Enigma is based on a 1995 novel of the same title by Robert Harris, and follows the main plot threads of that book reasonably closely. One area where it does not mirror the book is in the nature of the central character. The film tends to imply that Tom Jericho is a thinly disguised Alan Turing, with casual references to Jericho having developed the Bombe, even though Jericho’s heterosexual lifestyle and the chases he gets involved in seem likely to be about as far from the real Turing’s gay lifestyle as one could get. The novel, on the other hand, was at pains to avoid such a comparison, clearly making reference to Turing as another character distinct from Jericho at one point and even setting its story in 1943 when Turing wasn’t even in Britain. It’s as though the film is trying to milk Turing’s accomplishments without wanting to acknowledge his gayness.

That aside, the story that the film tells is intelligent and the efforts that have gone into some of the film’s production design are generally impressive. The script by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, The Russia House) requires that one pay attention continually if one is not to quickly lose the story’s various threads. The dialogue always sounds natural, but there are no words wasted. The confrontation between Jericho and Wigram in Jericho’s room, for example, is a delight to listen to just in terms of the literate exchanges between the two characters, but it also conveys a great deal of important information some of which is easy to miss if one gets caught up in just enjoying the interplay of words. The production is effective in recreating the atmosphere of the time by its close attention to costume detail and in its selection of locations, even if the actual Bletchley Park buildings aren’t used. Particularly good are the sequences showing the mechanics of how the Enigma machines work, and the claustrophobic nature of the rooms where the code-breakers are holed up either just waiting or working away for hours and days at a time. Less persuasive, however, is the implied absence of real security around sensitive establishments such as Bletchley. People seem to be able to come and go as they please and enter restricted rooms where they have no difficulty removing sensitive documents.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Kate Winslet is most impressive as Hester, somehow managing to appear both frumpish and sexy at the same time. Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible 2) looks suitably rumpled and tortured in the role of Jericho, while Jeremy Northam adds the inscrutable Wigram to a lengthy list of recent triumphs. The best part of all their work is that none of them seem shaken by having to exchange lengthy passages of dialogue without a weapon to brandish or some other prop to entertain the audience. Director Michael Apted (Enough, The World Is Not Enough, Thunderheart) makes good use of the Panavision widescreen for a film that doesn’t really cry out for it, and mixes in just enough action sequences to punctuate the cat and mouse plot effectively. John Barry contributes a haunting score that is most agreeable, even if it’s a bit derivative of his other work.

When information about this DVD release first surfaced, it looked as though a special edition might be in the works. Unfortunately that has proved not to be the case, suggesting that a double dip may well be in the offing. What we have is a bare-bones disc that’s not particularly well done. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is certainly not one of Columbia’s better efforts. The image ranges from quite sharp to very soft with noticeable video noise. Moiré effects are common and minor edge enhancement rears its head at times.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is quite nice. Certainly not an aggressive mix as one might expect, it does provide some very good ambient surround effects and conveys John Barry’s score smoothly. An isolated score would have been a good addition. English and Spanish subtitling is provided.

The supplements are limited to the original theatrical trailer and trailers for two other Columbia releases (Enough, xXx).

Despite some quibbles about the film’s trading on the Alan Turing legacy, Enigma is one of the more intelligent films to be released in the past year. It benefits greatly from strong source material from which a literate script has been constructed, and strong execution by the cast. Columbia, however, has dropped the ball on the DVD release with a weak transfer and failure to deliver any supplements of value. There’s no excuse for the latter given the information that’s available on the whole Enigma issue.


Another example of a fine film let down by a poor disc. I’d wait on the inevitable special edition.

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